Even if it’s a cliché to say, ‘They eat late in Spain’, it’s true that compared to their neighbours in Europe, Spaniards tend to eat later in the day. This is especially true of lunch and dinner, where people in Spain eat three to four hours later than, for example, many English people or Scandinavians.
Why does this matter? Well, mostly because trying to eat earlier will usually restrict your choice of restaurant, if you’re eating out. Many restaurants don’t serve dinner until 8pm or sometimes 9pm, so getting a booking at 7pm is likely to limit what is available to you, and drive you towards restaurants that are mostly geared towards tourists (yikes).
The other way in which timing is important is that eating is generally not a rushed affair in Spain. Sitting down for a meal is one of the most important moments of the day – a time to relax, a time to socialise and a time to appreciate the smaller pleasures of life. This isn’t to say that every Spaniard sits down to a two-hour lunch every day; there has been a slowly growing trend towards ‘Tupperware lunches’ in the bigger cities. But even office workers will make time to sit down with colleagues and unwind for a moment if they don’t get chance to nip out for a menu del día.
As in France or Italy, in Spain people tend to eat their meals accompanied with bread, and it’s customary for it to be served at the table regardless of what you’re eating. In most of Spain, butter isn’t very common, though, and olive oil is the preferred accompaniment to bread (and most other things). Remember that it’s not a course, though; you don’t have bread as a starter.
The other classic accompaniment to a meal is wine, which will come included in the price of a menu del día. It’s not frowned upon to have a glass (or maybe two) at lunch. Spaniards tend to drink Spanish wine, and there are some excellent local wines to be tried, ranging from full-bodied reds to fragrant whites and even the Spanish sparkling wine, cava, which is made in exactly the same way as French Champagne.
Again, this by no means that everyone in Spain sits down for a boozy lunch every day, and in fact Spaniards are generally not particularly heavy drinkers during the week, saving themselves for weekends and after work. As a general rule, beer is drunk in rather small glasses (compared to, for example, in Germany or the UK) although the size and name of these varies depending on where you are. Asking for a caña in Madrid will get you a very different-sized beer than asking for a caña in Bilbao. Ask for a zurito in the Basque Country and you’ll get a very small beer (about 10cl); asking for a zurito in Seville will get you nothing but a blank expression.
In recent years there has been growing attention on the so-called ‘Mediterranean diet‘, which is said to hold the secret to a long and heathy life. Here in Spain, this has been received with quite a bit of pride, and for good reason: the traditional Spanish diet is indeed rich in vegetables and vegetable-based oils (such as olive oil); plenty of fish; not much meat, and a preference for lean proteins wherever possible; and unrefined cereals.
This, however, doesn’t mean a restricted diet; it simply means eating a little bit of everything in moderation. A few slices of jamón iberico as a snack or in a mid-morning sandwich are seen as absolutely fine, especially if you then have a piece of fish and vegetables for lunch. Even a rich seafood paella or a nice juicy Galician-style steak are nothing to worry about every once in a while. Generally speaking, it’s a question of finding the right balance in every meal and throughout the day.
Finally, bear in mind that Spain is a modern, cosmopolitan country and in cities such as Madrid of Barcelona you’re able to get as much culinary variety as in any major European city. The younger generation are particularly adventurous when it comes to food, and Spain is also home to some of the most avant-garde restaurants, inspired by the likes of elBulli and Celler Can Roca. It seems that the way to eat like a Spaniard is simply to enjoy your food, whatever it is and however you eat it.